The Unlearned Lessons From the War in Iraq

The Unlearned Lessons From the War in Iraq

The Unlearned Lessons From the War in Iraq

You don’t have to reflect on a war if that war doesn’t end, let alone pay reparations for your crimes.


Leave it to George W. Bush to misspeak his way to the truth about the Iraq War that he launched 20 years ago. Last May, in a speech addressing Ukraine, he lambasted Vladimir Putin’s “wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.”

Bush, stammering, quickly corrected himself but then conceded the point, murmuring, “And Iraq, too. Anyway…” His audience laughed awkwardly, allowing the former commander in chief, then 75, to deflect the significance of the moment with a senility joke.

It was indicative of how deeply the United States has avoided reckoning with the barbarism of invading, occupying, and privatizing Iraq, a reckoning that might have cast Putin’s war in an uncomfortably familiar light. Instead, Iraq demonstrates an innovation in American imperial amnesia: You don’t have to consider the lessons of a war if that war doesn’t end—let alone pay reparations for those you killed, tortured, and displaced.

There are all manner of differences between Ukraine and Iraq, but little difference in the imperial ambitions of their invaders. Both the US and Russia resorted to violence to bring a resource-rich country within their sphere of influence, and both underestimated the will and capacity of locals to resist. Whether phantom weapons of mass destruction or phantom Nazi regimes, the invading power resorted to paranoid pretexts to justify a war of aggression in unambiguous violation of the United Nations Charter. But where Bush claimed breaching the charter would strengthen the international order, Putin, unburdened by global hegemony and its necessary posture of lawfulness, didn’t bother with such ridiculous assertions.

Two other key differences concern Russia’s inability to take Kyiv and the support Ukraine enjoys from the NATO juggernaut. But both Putin and Bush found their militaries placed within a crucible while hawkish voices back in the metropole, seized with fears of humiliation, demanded escalation. Little wonder Bush found himself unable to remember which war he was discussing.

Bush’s escalation, the 2007–8 troop surge, never produced the promised political reconciliation among Iraqis. Instead, it entrenched Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who persecuted the disempowered Iraqi Sunnis. But because it substantially reduced US troop deaths, the surge produced something subtler: a narrative that the Iraq War, after five agonizing years, had been functionally resolved—although to stay resolved, US troops, paradoxically, needed to remain in Iraq. It was a useful contradiction, forestalling not just an unambiguous defeat but the prospects for reconsidering what Barack Obama once called “the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” Now the only lessons of the war would be operational. And so Obama exported the surge to Afghanistan and pursued a new war in Libya, all while troops remained in Iraq.

In 2011, a fractious Iraqi parliament declined to extend legal protections to the remaining US forces, prompting Obama to recall the troops. Many in US national security circles decried the withdrawal as a failure of Obama’s diplomacy rather than as a verdict on the viability of a US presence from Iraqi leaders willing to work with Washington. When the Islamic State conquered Mosul in 2014, the blame in Washington went to the withdrawal, not the war that created ISIS’s parent entity, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The horrors of ISIS preempted any discussion of how the original US aggression, compounded by the routine brutalities of occupation, generated enemies worse than its initial ones. US policy-makers considered the central error to be not the invasion but the departure. The efficacy of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish-led ground forces in dislodging ISIS reinforced a preference for proxy war—a perennial imperial strategy—over large-scale US combat. That preference is perhaps the dominant lesson of Iraq drawn by the US foreign policy establishment.

By 2021, President Joe Biden, who had been one of the most important Democratic validators of the invasion, had secured a residual force without a clearly defined mission. Roughly 2,500 US troops are deployed in Iraq, with 900 more in Syria. Ostensibly, they’re a backstop against an ISIS resurgence, but in practice, they’re targets for Iranian proxies. Biden, his Republican critics, and the security institutions all regard this as more responsible than ending an imperial misadventure. Doing so ensures they can persist in a delusion central to their hegemonic project: that the world is a grenade and America the pin.

The number of Iraqis who died because of our invasion may never be known. Conservative estimates put it in the hundreds of thousands, with millions more turned into refugees. The war worked out much better for Western oil companies. In 2008, as the surge was ending, the US State Department guided the Iraqi government in awarding no-bid concessions of the country’s oil wealth to ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, and Total. “The Iraq war is largely about oil,” Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, wrote in his memoir. He told The Washington Post that he advised Bush to invade because it was “essential” to securing the global supply. Meanwhile, this January, Iraq’s planning ministry said that 25 percent of the country now lives below the poverty line.

You’ll drive yourself crazy if you try to view US foreign policy through a lens of logical consistency rather than according to its signature mix of material interest and exceptionalist fantasy. The resemblance the Iraq War bears to the war in Ukraine does not create any obligation to leave that country to a Russian fate. Instead, recognizing it creates the context for reconsidering what America owes Iraq—and the world.

The United States owes the Iraqi people reparations for the destruction it inflicted upon them. It owes the world, as well as itself, a renunciation of its post–Cold War prerogative to police the globe. That would demonstrate that the US is interested in learning the fundamental lessons of its 20-year-old crime. Instead, it’s unable to summon even the self-awareness of George W. Bush, who mutters under his breath an embarrassed recognition that he is just like that which he most hates.

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